The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel closed their three-day residency at the Barbican with a weighty combo of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, preceded by the European premiere of Sustain by Andrew Norman. At around 45 minutes long, this is a work of symphonic proportions, making full use of the massive LA Phil sound. The piece was commissioned to celebrate the orchestra’s centenary in 2018, by which time Norman and they had already established a close working relationship, with a number of previous premieres and commissions. With Sustain, he aimed to create a piece that would stand the test of time – another hundred years at least, hopefully – as well as capture a sense of something bigger, longer and more sustainable than the fragmented, sound bite-dominated present.

Gustavo Dudamel conducts the LA Phil
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Norman describes the work as a contracting spiral, with music repeated ten times over, each time getting exponentially faster. This repetition feels more like compression, with tension, a sense of frenzy and even chaos increasing as the piece progresses. Each repetition is announced by the tinkly jangle of two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart, and at either side of the stage, with a slightly more extended period of ethereal ripples towards the end of the piece. What is particularly striking in the early part is the sense of space, with some lengthy rests early on adding to the sense of tension in the concert hall – but this space is progressively compressed as the work unfolds. The cumulative effect, with ever-faster collisions of chromatic cascades swirling around the orchestra, is captivating, oppressive and thrilling at the same time.

Given the complexities of rhythm and tempo, as well as the freer passages where blocks of instruments are introduced in sequence, Dudamel’s role was largely confined to giving a crystal clear beat, without much scope for extensive interpretative gestures. However, the orchestral players have clearly taken the work to their hearts, as they were totally on top of the serious ensemble demands it presents, with perfectly co-ordinated Mexican waves of cascading cluster chords sweeping from front to back of the strings sections, for example. Happily, the orchestra received word earlier in the day that their recording of the work is up for two Grammy’s, for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and Best Orchestral Performance.

Normally a concert would build up to the dizzy heights of a Bruckner symphony, but here there was definitely a sense of ‘follow that’! Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 in E flat major, the “Romantic” (here in the 1878-1880 Nowak edition) is of course a colossal work, with thrilling moments, such as the four-horn fanfare statement of the opening movement’s solo at its conclusion, and the rip-roaring hunting fanfares of the Scherzo. And Dudamel and the LA Phil certainly gave full weight to the climaxes, loud and full-bodied, with a particularly blazing conclusion to the finale. There were moments of subtlety too, such as the delicate and elegantly paced string dance in the first movement, and the lilting slow march of the Andante. But despite conducting from memory, Dudamel’s presence was surprisingly low key, with limited theatre in his performance, except when joining in with the timpanist at the climax of the Scherzo. The lengthy finale lost momentum (although this is largely Bruckner’s fault, as the moments of excitement don’t entirely string together coherently), until the final crescendo, which Dudamel did hold on to well, making the final blaze suitably triumphant. But ultimately, despite a powerful overall performance of the Bruckner, it was Norman’s work that sustained interest and made the strongest impression.